Welcome to Riley Breckenridge's bi-weekly column for PureVolume, titled Everything In Its Right Place. The drummer—and founding member of Thrice—will be bringing us his musings on love, life, sports and whatever else. Follow Riley on Twitter @RileyBreck.
Ah, Coachella. A vibrant desert oasis packed to the gills with music, music lovers, industry folks, “tastemakers” and/or people who want to spend a weekend getting bent on booze, drugs, or booze and drugs and fall asleep with their shoes on and surrounded by strangers (unless, of course, they are fortunate enough to have scored swanky accommodations for the weekend).
As detailed in my previous column about South By Southwest, I don’t function very well in the festival atmosphere. My fear of crowds, incessant aural bludgeoning, overpriced concessions and long lines for port-a-potties inside of which festival goers tend to drop, squirt or spray their most intimate leavings everywhere but where they’re supposed to end up (read: the toilet) makes me a bit leery. And as I said before, if that makes me a wuss. Hi. I’m a wuss.
I’ve been to Coachella once, with Thrice in 2005, and haven’t managed to muster up the intestinal fortitude necessary to schlep my ass out to Indio since. The allure of standing around in 100-degree heat for 10-hours in order to see Radiohead play outdoors (an environment in which even the best live bands can sound like a trio of transistor radios playing three different FM stations from the bottom of a well) is lost on me. I suppose if you’re looking to get hammered and get some sun and see some bands and lose your friends because there’s no cell service in the middle of the desert and love rubbing elbows with sweaty folks wearing the jerseys of obscure '90s NBA point guards and don’t mind planning your lengthy trips to the bathroom around set times of bands you paid good money to see, I get it. I really do. Some of us are made for this. I, sadly, am not.
Coachella 2005 was an interesting experience. And by interesting, I mean harrowing and nerve-wracking and overwhelming and probably ill-advised. We were in the middle of recording Vheissu, the follow-up to our major label debut The Artist in the Ambulance. After being rushed by Island Records to write and record TAITA (a process that ended up taking three or four months that felt like three or four weeks, and kept us from doing exactly what we wanted to do with that record for better or worse), we had decided that we were going take our time writing Vheissu. We waited to schedule recording until we felt fairly confident that what we’d written and experimented with was an accurate sonic picture of our collective headspace and a notable departure from what we’d done in the past. (A decision that proved to be beneficial to our longterm careers as artists/musicians, but not so much in the “major label momentum/units sold” department. And I think we’re all fine with that.)
So, while the writing process of Vheissu seemed interminable, we were still getting considerable pressure from the label and our booking agent to stay busy on the touring front. It made sense. Because of the concessions that the label had made with regard to the writing process, we’d have to acquiesce a bit on the touring side to stay relevant and keep everyone content. Not a big deal. This is why you align yourselves with people smarter than you to keep something you’ve poured your heart and soul into for most of your adulthood functioning properly. As a result, we ended up wedging a whirlwind weekend of playing Bamboozle in New Jersey on a Friday and Coachella in California on a Sunday smack dab in the middle of recording Vheissu. (Note: We also had a full Warped Tour booked on the back end of our recording sessions, during which we’d try to mix the record remotely, from a bus in the parking lot of arenas across the Midwest. Not our wisest decision.)
A weekend full of that much travel to play two high-pressure shows looked fairly doable on paper, but as the time approached, it seemed much less like something that we would ever thought was a good idea and oh my goodness holy crap what the hell have we gotten ourselves into? It’s incredibly taxing (mentally, physically and emotionally) to try to flip the switch from “writing, recording and creating mode” to “having unrehearsed material (new and old) ready to play” in general, and to try to do it for two of the biggest shows we’d ever been a part of, in the middle of a crucial recording process, had me losing my mind in the woods in upstate New York more often than I’d care to admit. I took many a long walk through the hills of Woodstock, freaking out about the gravity of the record we were trying to make and the shows we were about to play.
As I am wont to do, I’ve successfully erased the most unfortunate details of both shows from the hard drive in my head. I think the Bamboozle show was decent (certainly not our best) and the hangs were fantastic. That festival (and those like it) always gave us a chance to reconnect with touring buddies from years past, something I always looked forward to, and miss dearly. But the good times were short-lived, as we had to wake up early the next morning for a cross country flight to play in front of a crowd that (for the most part) didn’t know who we were and couldn’t be bothered to care.
We had (for reasons unbeknownst to us) landed a Main Stage spot at Coachella. It was a dream come true. We were in the process of making a record that we’d hoped would bridge the gap between the Warped Tour, Bamboozle, Alternative Press crowd that we’d developed an impassioned following in over our first seven years as a band and the finicky Coachella, Pitchfork, Stereogum, et al, crowd that many of the bands that were influencing our current writing and recording thrived in.
There was a fair share of drama that weekend. We caught wind that there was some commotion about our set time, who we played before and after, why we were even on the bill to begin with, and more. While hearing about these things was mildly discouraging, it was hardly new to us, and ended up being more of a galvanizing force than something that made us put our tails between our legs. We’d never really fit into any particular scene or genre, and thrived on using situations like these to prove people wrong and try to win over new fans.
Judging by the crowd around the Main Stage when we played early that Sunday afternoon, we wouldn’t have much of an opportunity to win over new fans. (If I recall correctly, my folks had no problem sneaking to within a few rows of the stage to watch us and weren’t mauled by emphatic droves of moshers in the process.) There were a lot of blank faces, our set was iffy at best (I blame serious jet lag, nerves, a lack of practice and, well . . . it was Coachella after all.) and I’m not sure it did anything to foster the crossover we were hoping for. But goddamn, was it a rush. Beyond just getting to play the main stage, surviving the crazy travel schedule and playing for our diehard fans who had made the trek out to Indio to see us, we got to experience one of the most prestigious festivals on the planet with artist and VIP passes, got to see an incredible set by Nine Inch Nails and we survived the whole thing happy, healthy and grateful as hell that we’d gotten such an amazing opportunity. As much as I fear the Coachella experience as a fan, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more awed and humbled by a festival experience from a musician’s standpoint than I was on that Sunday in 2005.